It's Foreclosure Crisis Day at the NYT: What Could We Have Possibly Done?

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Written by Dean Baker   
Monday, 20 August 2012 13:19

It often seems like much of economics and economic policy is about making simple things as difficult as possible. So it seems with the NYT's discussion today of the foreclosure crisis and the Obama administration's tepid response.

Of course the HAMP and various derivative programs were complicated. They were made even more so by the fact that mortgage servicers really weren't set up to do modifications. The servicer process was set up to minimize costs by establishing standardized procedures. These outfits knew how to collect monthly payments, send out late notices, start default proceedings, and carry through foreclosures. They had specified payments for each step in this process. Working out loan modifications was not on the list, so it's not surprising that they didn't do a very good job, especially when we factor in complications like second mortgages.

There was an easier route. Early on in the crisis (August of 2007) I proposed the first version of my Right to Rent plan. The basic point was very simple. It gave homeowners the option to stay in their home as renters for a designated period of time following foreclosure (at least 5 years in my ideal world) paying the market rent.

This would accomplish several important goals. First and foremost it would instantly give homeowners facing foreclosure a substantial degree of housing security. If they had kids in school, the rental period would likely be long enough to let them finish. It would also give them some time to get on their feet financially and make arrangements for appropriate housing.

Second, it would prevent a blight of foreclosures from ruining whole neighborhoods. Renters who effectively have long-term leases have almost as much incentive to maintain the property as owners. At the least they would keep homes occupied so that they would not be eyesores and possible havens for crime.

Third, this right would give banks more incentive to find ways to modify mortgages to keep people in their homes as owners. Banks would generally prefer having a foreclosed house free and clear rather than being a landlord for 5 years. By making the foreclosure option less attractive, Right to Rent would make banks more willing to consider alternatives.

Right to Rent would not have required any massive bureaucracy. It could have been handled within the same legal framework in which foreclosures were handled. The main cost would be the payment for appraisers who would determine the market rent on a foreclosed home. This is the same process that appraisers follow when determining the market price of a home for someone seeking a mortgage.

Right to Rent also raised few of the moral hazard or political issues associated with various plans to have the government pay down debt. The former homeowner hardly gets a bonanza in this story. They get a right to stay in their home that they would not have otherwise had, in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances homeowners faced in the peak years of the housing bubble. 

I was impressed that many moderate conservatives considered Right to Rent a reasonable solution to the housing crisis such as former Bush administration economist Andrew Samwick and Desmond Lachmon, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. Even Fox business anchor Neil Cavuto sent me a note saying that he agreed with the idea.

Of course President Obama would have had to get Congress to pass such a measure. Would they have done it in early 2009? Who knows, there was a huge amount of goodwill directed toward the new president, who had sky high approval ratings at the time. Certainly it would have been difficult to push a Santelli type rant-fest against Right to Rent. After all, there were no taxpayer dollars involved.

In this area, as in so many others, the Obama administration was unwilling to really push anything new. Perhaps Right to Rent wouldn't have worked (we can still try it), but it certainly could not have done worse than the alternatives.